Monday, March 28, 2016

A Town Founded By Chinese, or Not?

A Town Founded by Chinese or Not? 

So when exactly did the Chinese come to Locke? Well, interestingly enough, the story changes over the years depending on who you talk to. In James Motlow's book "Bitter Melon," Ping Lee, son of Lee Bing, claimed that the Chinese built Locke in 1914, after the great fire in Walnut Grove that destroyed all of its Chinatown (pages 32-34).

In articles all over the Internet, websites and even some books, the fire allegedly took place in 1914, 1915 or even 1916.

In August of 2015,  I was contacted by Mr. Motlow after I had been quoted in the Central Valley Business Times, backing up Martha Esch's claims that Locke was not exclusively a Chinese town, and that many other people of various backgrounds called the town home over the years. After asking Mr. Motlow about the rampant discrepancies online in dates of the Walnut Grove fire time frame, he graciously emailed me a few copies of the old newspapers of the time that finally puts this question to rest!  Sure enough, the date of the Walnut Grove fire occurred on October 7, 1915 as stated in the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union archives.

How  Did The Fire Start? 

Walnut Grove-  Fire which started, according to the best information, through the introduction of a lighted cigarette into a cleaning establishment, wiped out Walnut Grove's Chinatown today with a loss of $100,000 and only the shifting of the wind late in the afternoon saved the remainder of the town from destruction. At 5 o'clock the flames were under control, but were still burning in places.

When the fire first started water was thrown on the gasoline and the flames immediately spread all over the shop. Twelve hundred dollars were stolen from one of the big establishments in Chinatown, and practically the whole available force from the Sheriff's office has been called to Walnut Grove. The deputies besides endeavoring to catch the thieves, will prevent any possible disorder.

The fire broke out in the Oriental quarter just before noon, and although every effort was made to save the Chinese homes and stores, the wind swept everything before it. Although Alex Brown's two fire boats were called into commission and worked heroically to stem the blaze, the north wind forced back the fire fighters. Chinatown fell before the assault, and the saloon of Bob Rhodes followed.

Then the fire boats received unexpected aid from an unexpected quarter. The wind shifted, and turned the blaze back on itself. As a result the streams of water from the fire boats were sufficient to down the flames. The loss was practically confined to the Oriental section of Walnut Grove. The hotel, store, bridge and the residences of the Americans are standing unhurt.

Dye brothers own most of the property on which Chinatown stood. It is not known how much Insurance they carried or whether they or the Chinese intend to rebuild."---  October 8, 1915


Destruction of Chinatown resulted in $100,000 loss- Dye Estate and Alexander Brown heaviest losers- Modern Buildings will replace 85 structures consumed in flames-

Walnut Grove (Sacramento County) October 8- The destruction of Walnut Grove's Chinatown by fire yesterday afternoon resulted in a loss of approximately $100,000. It was stated today little insurance was carried.  The biggest losses were sustained by the Dye estate and Alexander Brown, the former's being about $24,000 and the latter's about $10,000. Eighty-five houses and stores were consumed by the flames, in addition to several barns and smaller structures. Rebuilding will start at once, it has been announced and the new buildings will be fully modern.

Started From Oil Stove- The blaze started in a Japanese woman's house near the river. She was cooking fish on an oil stove. she left the room for a few moments, and when she returned the room was a mass of flames. The fire spread rapidly, and was carried almost to the heart of the business section..... It was reported that ashes fell in Woodbridge, seventeen  miles away.  The town was saved by streams of water from fire boats, after a bad wind had veered."--- Sacramento Bee, 10/8/1915


When the argument comes up about who started Locke, and who it "belonged to," you will always find that books and articles state the town belonged to the Chinese but that because they couldn't officially "own" property that is why they didn't own their homes in Locke. Yes, there were laws in effect back then excluding mainly Japanese, and Chinese from owning land, this was no different than how things were in Walnut Grove, where many of the Chinese and Japanese had been living prior to moving to Locke.

Still the fact remains that there is no conclusive evidence to show that had the property been available, that the Locke family would have ever sold it to anyone, Chinese or non-Chinese. In fact, in an oral interview transcribed and readily available to the public, Connie King admitted that she had approached the Locke family, long after the laws preventing the Chinese from owning property were overturned, wanting to buy her home, and that they refused to sell. The fact was that Locke belonged to the Locke family and the family intended to keep the property, the estate, together. They never had any intention to sell.

Another issue I have with this whole "exclusively Chinese" story is that there is documented evidence that shows there were other people (non-Chinese) living in Locke around the same time that it was claimed to be "founded by and exclusively for the Chinese."  There are also records showing many Chinese immigrants were claiming to have been born in the U.S. (by way of fake papers) which allowed many of them the ability to own land and businesses regardless of their national status. One of those being Lee Bing.

In the book "Bitter Melon" by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow, the authors interviewed Ping Lee, the son of Lee Bing** (early resident of Locke),  who claimed that his father had four or five ranches* and that he "bought a lot of land" because, as it reads, "That law [ about Chinese not owning land] was pretty flexible."-- pg 34.  

So, did the Chinese exclusively start the town of Locke (Lockeport)? According to the documents and records I have found, I would have to say "no."  I believe the Chinese played a big part in helping the town grow, but to say that they solely founded the town, I would have to disagree. I believe that over the years, as time went on the town's population might have became primarily Chinese, but that from 1915 up until the 1930's there were lots of non-Chinese residents living in the boundaries of Locke. So that means there were all sorts of people living in Locke in its early years.


*old parcel maps of the Delta also show  Lee Bing's name as owning a section of land on the other side of the river in Walnut Grove near Ryde. In fact, he is listed in several directories as also living in Walnut Grove and is listed as a registered voter, too.

**The 1900 Census shows Lee Bing working as a "servant" for Alex Brown (of Walnut Grove). His records on the Census and following Census records have him listed as being born in California with Chinese born parents although that is not accurate, as he immigrated to the U.S. in 1893 -according to Ping Lee's interview.

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio,

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